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The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

Making Users Uncomfortable (On Purpose)

In this thought-provoking article, “Uncomfortable User Experience,” by Steve Benford et al., a new component of interactivity is discussed: deliberate use of discomfort as a part of an experience. The examples included in this article all violate the goal that usability professionals strive for—to create an easy and pleasurable user experience. Usability experts Joe Dumas and Beth Loring urge usability test moderators to “ensure the well-being of the participant.”1 No doubt there are plenty of UX people who would recoil at some of the interactions described in Benford et al.’s article. However, consider the example of amusement park rides cited in the article, which are a popular form of entertainment in the United States. The ubiquitous experience of indeterminable waiting in line for these rides, which hasn’t changed much in several decades, also seems to contradict the UX creed to lessen discomfort for users.

There are plenty of simple solutions that could be implemented to make line-waiting less tedious and physically exhausting. And yet, according to blogger Andy Megowan, there are reasons behind the apparent madness. Megowan’s blog post, “The Secret Objectives of Queues,” describes how waiting in line at theme park rides are an integral component of the overall experience. And there’s little evidence that the discomfort of waiting in lines has diminished the popularity of the rides: Universal’s theme park attendance increased 7.9% in 2013, while Disney and Six Flags averaged 2% increases in park attendance in the past year.2, 3 So evidently some amount of induced discomfort can be a part of a sought-after experience.

Another example: the “haunted” house venues that pop up during Halloween season. It’s a known phenomenon that the combination of extreme excitement, followed by feelings of intense relief, can be a positive experience for some people.4 In light of these examples, should intentionally discomfortable (yes, it’s really a word) experiences be an acknowledged part of the UX spectrum, or does it contradict usability’s goal of improving user experience? What do you think?

-Linda Hwang, Usability Sciences, Senior User Experience Analyst

Sources:

  1. Joe Dumas and Beth Loring, Moderating Usability Tests: Principles & Practices for Interacting (New York: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2008), 26.
  2. Rob Lovitt, “Disney and Universal battle for theme park guests’ dollars,” NBCNews, September 5, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/business/travel/disney-universal-battle-theme-par….
  3. Trefis, “Disney raises ticket prices again for its theme parks,” NASDAQ, February 28, 2014, http://www.nasdaq.com/article/disney-raises-ticket-prices-again-for-its-….
  4. Emily Sohn, “Why is fear fun?” Discovery News, October 25, 2012, http://news.discovery.com/human/psychology/fear-allure-halloween-121025.htm.

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